Sonam Reviewed

Photo by Ryan Charles

Craig LaBan’s review of South Street’s Sonam reminds us of a Ryan Howard at bat. When chef Ben Byruch connects he often hit a home run but there were too many whiffs in the ambitious menu. But hey, at least he’s trying for a home run.

Among the most memorable were the “hamachi nachos,” tortilla chips topped with yellowtail sushi and a spicy streak of oil infused with the essence of pico de gallo. There is also a memorable savory trompe l’oeil twist on S’Mores, in which broiled goat-cheese “marshmallows” sit atop the chocolate lookalike of reduced figs and whole meal crackers for a clever campfire twist on the cheese course.

The Asian chicken sliders – three brioche-bun minis topped with a ponzu mayonnaise – are among the best poultry burgers I’ve ever had. Granted, that’s not a high bar, but I’ve actually come to crave these moist and gingery little patties.

One Bell – Hit or Miss

Sonam [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Sonam [Official Site]

This Marigold’s a Star

LaBan loves the new Southern-inflected style of Marigold Kitchen, awarding it three bells. But he’s worried:

…O’Shea’s impressive debut in her first months as a head chef is a reaffirmation. It reinforces Marigold’s continued standing as one of our most intriguing kitchens. And the mercurial ease with which this 40-seat destination has drastically changed its culinary personality (now for the second time) is a vivid reminder why the intimate Philadelphia BYOB – as a genre – remains the purest stage for an emerging chef to make her creative voice heard.

Whether many folks are hearing it is the question. There was hardly a soul in the dining room during my final mid-week meal, even though Marigold’s new menu has dropped its entree prices by nearly $10, to mostly under $20, in an effort to bring the neighborhood crowd back.

Marigold Kitchen [Inquirer]
Marigold Kitchen [Official Site]

Jasper Gets Two Bells

Craig LaBan heads to Downingtown and the New American BYOB, Jasper owned by chef Nick DiFonzo.

Deceptively light tubes of gnocchi came in a delightfully bisquey tomato broth infused with olive oil. Crab cakes filled with sweet meat and bound with a delicate seafood mousse took on a confident Asian flair beside a glass noodle salad blushing sweet and spicy with caramelized sriracha.

Crepes came elegantly rolled around a mushroom puree so rich, it had the intensity of a good rich soup. And the perfume of mini-kobe Rossini burgers splashed with demi-glace was so heady, the entire table inhaled their truffled aroma when those foie gras-topped sliders landed before me.

Two Bells – Very Good

Jasper [Official Site]

Two Bells For Ugly American

Nothing ugly in Craig LaBan’s write-up on Pennport’s Ugly American.

[Chef David] Gilberg has a few nice moves with seafood, too, like the garlicky head-on shrimp, and the seared dayboat scallops with chunky bacon-laced chowder and puffy popovers, and fried oysters with an addictive celery root-spinach salad.

But he has a special touch with beef, including possibly the best prime-grade steak deal in town. His ginger- and soy-marinated “Belvedere” – a wonderfully marbled chuck cut patented by Wells Meats – comes with a skillet-seared crust over a lavish smear of black truffle bearnaise. At $22 (and with a brilliant side of twice-baked potato stuffed with sweet creamy crab), this dish should draw surf ‘n’ turfers of all ilk, from the Pennsport neighbors to visitors from the no-man’s-land of the nearby Riverview complex.

Two Bells – Very Good

Ugly American [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Ugly American [Official Site]

Dumpling Dive Is Dumpling Heaven

Dim Sum Garden
Craig LaBan visits Dim Sum Garden in Chinatown in search of a worthy replacement to Lakeside Chinese Deli and finds perhaps the best scallion pancakes in city and more importantly to adventure seeking diners, “soup dumplings.”

Nip a hole and slurp the juice, for which our charming waitress finally confided the secret: pork “Jell-O” that becomes molten in the steam. Eyes snap open as the liquid rushes across our tongue, intensely savory, with a twinge of soy sweetness followed by the resonance of garlic. A dip in gingery black vinegar washes the tender meat stuffing and dumpling skin down with a bracingly tart smack. Want another? You bet!

Two Bells – Very Good

Dumpling heaven in Chinatown [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Bells Ring For Bindi

Bindi - Photo by Ryan Charles

Photo by Ryan Charles

Craig LaBan visits Marcie Turney’s and Valerie Safran’s Bindi and finds a thoughtful update to Indian food.

Turney’s pork vindaloo, though, may be Bindi’s best example of a refined classic. The typical slow-stewed meat is upgraded with yieldingly soft seared tenderloin. And the meat’s aromatic crust of black cardamom, clove, cumin and nigella seeds sparks against the hot and sour gravy, a vinegar- and wine-tinged brew that unfurls with sweet spice on the tongue before a final whip-crack of chile heat. A comforting puree of creamy cauliflower and a sweet mango-date chutney cushions the vindaloo’s bold flavors.

Three Bells – Excellent

An update of Indian cuisine, faithful to authentic flavors [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Bindi [Official Site]

Morning News with Kimchi

Still riled up about that 50 Best Bars covers story in Philadelphia Weekly? Consider this tour of Fishtown’s best bars by Brian McManus. Funny and frightening in equal amounts. [PW]

The Inquirer went Seoul crazy this weekend, with LaBan reviewing Everyday Good House on Front and Olney and Rick Nichols extolling the virtues of Korean fried chicken and Cooking Papa. [The Inquirer]

Lew Bryson wonders whether it’s time to retire the term “beer geek.” Reading his post indicates to us that it’s not. No word on what he thinks of gastropub. [Seen Through a Glass]

Do restaurants really suffer during a recession? We hope not. Then again, since everyone’s going on food stamps, the issue might be moot. [NY Times]

Le Virtu Gets Two Bells

Le Virtu
Craig LaBan is a sucker for couples who own restaurants and he finds another favorite twosome in this week’s review of Le Virtu on East Passyunk.

If you’ve eaten at handsome Le Virtu in South Philadelphia, you’ll realize that Francis Cratil and his wife, Catherine Lee, are among the lucky few. And if you’ve had a chance to savor the homespun Abruzzese pastas topped with lamb and duck ragus, or to nibble on deep-fried olives stuffed with braised meat, then you’ll know we’re the lucky ones, too. Because Le Virtu is not simply one of the most pleasant new restaurants I’ve visited this year; it adds yet another layer of authenticity to our already rich and growing Italian scene.

Le Virtu [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Le Virtu [Official Site]

Azie In Media

Craig LaBan checks out the sexy Azie in downtown Media and finds it wanting.

Where is the restaurant that will finally put Media on the map as the next budding West Chester, Collingswood or Manayunk? By all logic, it should be Azie. This newcomer is such a stunningly designed contemporary space, and has such a pedigreed kitchen – “one of the world’s greatest Japanese chefs,” according to the press release – I wasn’t a bit surprised when the glowing propaganda started sizzling in my e-mail box.

But logic, I’ve since been reminded by a couple of less than stellar dinners here, doesn’t do the cooking.

One Bell – Hit or Miss

Azie [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Azie [Official Site]

Yeah Beer!

Standard Tap Menu
Craig LaBan takes a look at Philadelphia’s rich beer culture in his Sunday Inquirer writeup.

“Philly really is a great beer town,” says Vinnie Cilurzo of the widely respected Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, Calif. His much sought-after barrel-aged Belgian-style brews, such as Pliny the Elder, are available only in California and Philadelphia.

“Having our beers available at Monk’s was a really big deal,” he said, putting them in one of the foremost Belgian bars in America.

A toast to a city of brews [Philadelphia Inquirer]

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